Learning beyond their borders

Russians: Private-school educators come to the United States to get a glimpse of how American classrooms work.

October 10, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MONKTON - A line of "pre-first-graders" snaked through the hallway of St. James Academy in Monkton on Friday morning, then pupils stood beside the open door of a conference room and listened, silently, to the sounds of Russian being spoken within.

Eleven private-school educators from Russia and two interpreters were inside, discussing education techniques and philosophies with academy officials.

After a few minutes, the children went quietly back to their classrooms. St. James offers a pre-first-grade class to pupils who need an extra year of lessons between kindergarten and first grade.

The Russians were visiting the school as part of a three-week program designed to give Russian entrepreneurs firsthand knowledge of how things are done in the United States. But the visit was a learning experience for St. James pupils as well.

"We always multitask at St. James," said Elizabeth Legenhausen, head of the school, adding that exposing pupils to other cultures is an important mission at St. James. Later in the morning, several older pupils led the Russians on a tour of the school, which houses pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Members of the Russian delegation were mostly directors and owners of private schools in Russia. Their visit was sponsored by the Productivity Enhancement Program, a program run by the nonprofit San Francisco-based Center for Citizen Initiatives. The goal of the program is to bring Russians to the United States to learn about businesses.

Kiwanis Club members in the Baltimore-area Capital District Division 12 are housing the delegates and have raised about $3,500 to support the program, said John Maranto, the Kiwanis member in charge of publicity. The U.S. State Department pays another $3,500 or so, and the delegates pay $2,000 to $4,000, he said.

Kiwanis members also accompany the delegation to many events. One Kiwanis member at St. James on Friday was Dave Helm, a retired Baltimore County teacher. "One of the reasons I do this is because you learn so much," he said.

Maranto said that four years ago, his Kiwanis division was host to members of the Russian media through the same program.

During the program, which runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 24, the educators from Russia are visiting several private schools, including the Friends School in Fulton, Calvert Hall College High School, the McDonogh School, Glenelg Country School and the Severn School.

Though the schedule is busy, some sightseeing and fun have been built into the visit.

Delegates took in an opera at the Lyric Opera House, saw a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra youth performance and went to the Fells Point Fun Festival. They plan to have a crab feast, eat at a Thai restaurant and go sightseeing in Washington.

Tatyana Kashkina, who runs a private school in St. Petersburg, said she has learned a lot about American private schools. Mostly, she said, she has been amazed by how much less red tape American private schools face and by how much larger the classes are.

In her school, she has 24 students in grades one through 11 (the highest grade before college), and she said a ratio of one teacher for three students is the norm.

"In our schools, if you have 10 students, it's considered a huge class," she said, speaking through interpreter Andrey Uvarov. She also said that private schools in Russia tend to keep students until 8 p.m. and feed them five meals a day, though public schools let children out in mid-afternoon.

Kashkina, who opened her school in 1992, is also part of a coordinating committee for non-governmental schools in St. Petersburg. She described many of the struggles her school has faced because of the Russian bureaucracy and the faltering economy.

Still, she has yet to be convinced that American teaching techniques are superior to Russian methods. Though Russian schools have more restrictions, she said, the teaching there is more creative.

Even though she hasn't gathered many educational ideas to take home, she is enjoying the visit.

"It's always fun to learn," she said. "It's educational to find out how people on the other side of the globe live, even if I don't learn anything professional."

Then she added: "I think I have an interesting idea. I want to invite Americans to come to our schools. You can learn various teaching methods and techniques from us."

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